His voice, his eyes chilled her with foreboding. They stood in utter silence.
Joan touched the throbbing veins in her throat and moistened her lips.
“You have heard from Mr. Whitaker—”
“Yes, Garry brought the letter up.”
“I’m sailing in a week. I go from here—to-morrow.”
The terror in her eyes startled him and the tension snapped. An instant later she was crying wildly in his arms. Brian crushed his lips against her cheek, conscious only of an agonizing stab of joy, then Joan pulled away, her eyes dark with grief and shame.
“Oh, Brian, Brian,” she whispered passionately, “I—want—to die.”
“I’ve wanted to die for weeks,” said Brian. “Almost I think I did.”
Joan caught her breath with a shuddering gasp.
“Don’t!” said Brian. “I—can’t bear to hear you cry. I’ve always known that I was a pretty poor sort but this—”
His honest eyes begged for understanding,
Joan’s face, wet with tears, condoned.
“I—I am worse,” she said unsteadily.
He caught her hands rebelliously.
“But you love me,” he said wistfully. “That, at least—”
Joan slipped into his arms again with a sob.
“I love you better than my life,” she said, “and I may—never—say it again.”
[Illustration: “I love you better than my life,” Joan said, “and I may—never—say it again.”]
Brian pressed his cheek against her hair.
“No,” he said. “No. I would not have you say it again, Joan, dear as it is to hear it.”
An eternity of minutes seemed to tick away in the silence.
“Brian, you must believe I meant to be true to Kenny—”
“Don’t!” he choked, paling at the sound of Kenny’s name. “Oh, Kenny, Kenny!”
Joan buried her face in his arm. Both were thinking with hot remorseful hearts of that stormy penitent with the laughing, tender Irish eyes. Both loved him well. And both were pledging themselves to keep his happiness intact.
Joan’s tormented memory was busy with pictures: Kenny disastrously sculling the punt to help her, Kenny in the death-chamber shuddering and patient and passionately resolved to stay by her to the end, Kenny with the lantern held high above her head, Kenny digging dots and helping Don to study and Kenny tearing bricks from the ancient fireplace.
She slipped out of his arms in a panic, her face, Brian thought, as white as the old-fashioned lilies in the garden.
“Brian, go—” she choked.
With the truth of the ragged money burning itself into her mind—with Brian so near and yet so far—the touch of his arms was torment.
Hungry for the peace of the pines and the lonely cabin, Joan fled out-of-doors.
THE KING OF YOUTH